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The Closure of BBC Television Centre

TVC and snow

I was of course sad to see the programmes marking the closure of BBC Television Centre last night. The shows themselves were worthwhile – a well-chosen booking of Madness, a band who played all the big music shows made in the studios over the years, and who retain their popular appeal, plus a retrospective hosted by Michael Grade. But it was very odd that the latter programme allowed so many celebs, in among their reminiscences, to make a range of ill-informed and often rather stupid arguments against the closure of TVC.

Of course, it’s sad to see it go. Indeed, it’s hard to get one’s head around the idea of the BBC selling Television Centre: to many, including me, it long seemed that TVC was the BBC. For people of my age, the association was forged on Blue Peter, Going Live and Record Breakers, and of course in the Broom Cupboard. And there’s no end of broadcasting history stretching even further back. Even as it was winding down, I still felt it was a modestly important moment in my life when I first stepped into it in 2008 – albeit that was as an audience member, and that meeting to discuss making my brilliant idea for a programme will probably now happen somewhere else…

But the rag-bag of arguments put forward on BBC4 last night against its closure prompted me to think about TVC in the context of the BBC and television production more broadly. Seen in this light it’s clear that, however sad it might be, continuing with TVC in its present form simply couldn’t be sustained.

The “television factory” was always there to do a job
Ultimately, TVC is there to do a job, just like any other TV facility. That’s why it was built, and indeed that’s what it will continue to be used for. The vague arguments against closing it seemed to be:

  • it has heritage and should therefore be kept going; well, the first part is true, and the listing of the building guarantees its continued existence, so the UK’s heritage systems have worked
  • it’s a good building to make television programmes; not really true any more, as we’ll see
  • BBC television production somehow needs to be all in one place; except it never has been, ever…

It’s important to understand that television production was designed into the very structure of TVC: it was thoroughly purpose-built. Unfortunately, that television production process was the process of the 1950s, when virtually all TV shows were made in the same way: either broadcast live or recorded as-live, in a multi-camera studio using video cameras after a period of rehearsal. Comedy, drama, light entertainment, cookery shows, you name it – it was all made in basically the same way.

Hardly any TV is made like that now: some sitcoms, panel shows, gameshows, magazine programming and a few other odds and ends. But significantly, drama had moved away from multi-camera setups mostly by the end of the 1980s (and entirely when The House of Elliot ended in 1994) and away from live broadcasting long before that – bar soaps, which TVC did not host anyway. Sitcoms have partly moved away from the setup as well, and those that stick with the traditional format can often only do so in a slightly ‘meta’ way (Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys – the latter not made in TVC, I know), with straight multi-camera sitcoms often derided as somehow unworthy (see My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and others). The growth of independent TV production also hastened the move away from multi-camera production in the big traditional facilities. When Penelope Keith observed on BBC4 that Sport and Children’s had new homes but asked, “Where does what happened here go?” the answer is that what happened at TVC in terms of drama and comedy doesn’t happen like that any more anyway.

So for decades production at TVC has been somewhat in decline. In recent years it has reportedly become a bit of a ghost town, its work supplemented by hiring out its studios for independent network shows: famously on the day of the London bombings in 2005, Mock the Week and 8 out of 10 Cats were both due to record but only enough comedians for one show could make it to TVC – the panels were combined, the C4 show got made, and that week went un-mocked.

TV anoraks like me will have read many accounts from people involved in the technical side of TV production of just how difficult it is to make TV in a facility with 1950s methods hard-wired into it, and modern technology bodged into the old framework. It’s not for nothing that it is being closed for a thorough refurbishment before being reopened as a production facility in a couple of years’ time.

Into the modern world, out of west London

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

TV is made using modern technology, and technology changes. As an industry TV is grappling with the consequences of that (and this is not the place to get into debates about whether existing “channels” will become “content providers” with release dates rather than schedules), but in terms of production facilities there is a clear trend: older 1950s, 60s and 70s facilities are being shut down, and new ones built – indeed, TVC did well to hang on as long as it did. Pebble Mill in Birmingham ad New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester (no end of BBC buildings seem to have been called New Broadcasting House at some point in their lives…) are now closed and demolished. In the independent sector, Granada’s Quay Street studio complex has shut, YTV in Leeds has closed in its old form though like TVC seems to be getting a new lease of life as an HD facility, and so on.

In the BBC specifically, there is of course a big of a shift out of London. The debate about whether it was right to shift entire departments north is for another day, but the BBC has always had strong regional centres and what’s happening now can be seen as boosting them: the facilities in Salford, Cardiff and Pacific Quay in Glasgow may be new, but there are long traditions of programme-making in those parts of the country; indeed, I was just as excited to do work experience a decade ago in New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester as I later was to visit TVC – it’s where they made The 8:15 from Manchester! So BBC Television has always (well, ever since broadcasting was established across the whole of the UK) been about more than London.

Within London however, the BBC is undertaking a shift away from many of its old sites, and largely out of west London. But it’s important to remember that the BBC hasn’t always inhabited the west London locations it’s now associated with. North London used to be BBC territory far more than the west, although studios were dotted around everywhere: there was Alexandra Palace (in use for news until 1969, well after the opening of TVC, and the Open Univerity until the early 80s), Lime Grove (in use until 1991), Riverside Studios (in use until the early 1970s); plus central London for radio. Camden Palace, now Koko, was the BBC’s Radio Theatre from 1945 to 1972, succeeded by the Golders Green Hippodrome (used for television in the late 60s while the Shepherd’s Bush theatre was refurbished).

The move to west London happened in earnest post-war, and with the sale of TVC has now been largely undone. This is the culmination of developments arising from the technological shifts that moved TV production away from multi-camera by the 1990s. In the early 90s the BBC dispensed of its Television Theatre (which reverted to its previous identity, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire) and its Film Studios (again known as Ealing Studios and still a production facility) – the old divide between multi-camera video and single-camera filmed material having declined in importance. The BBC’s purpose-built rehearsal facility in Acton, the “Acton Hilton”,  has been demolished, after being relegated to storage use for many years (the move away from as-live multi-camera production also meant a move away from extensive rehearsal periods). Its archive on Windmill Road in Brentford was closed in 2011, albeit replaced by a purpose-built facility still out west in Uxbridge. Even the larger White City production and office complex is being wound down. Also, albeit not in west London, the World Service has moved out of Bush House.

So the sale of TVC is part of a much bigger shift, from London to the regions and from older facilities – however steeped in broadcasting history – to newer ones purpose-built for current production techniques. No doubt in thirty to fifty years’ time, these facilities will be looking out of date and debate will rage about their future.

The BBC’s flaghips, past present and future
For all that it had to be done, the sale of TVC does mean the BBC has vacated its flagship location. But the BBC has had more than one flagship location in the past: Broadcasting House and Alexandra Palace have also had that honour. The former is now the undisputed flagship once more – albeit that its new u-shaped architectural signature feature has initially become known as the place where BBC executives stand to resign – and nobody is making the case that the BBC should return to Alexandra Palace. TVC will also move to the status of historic location, like Ally Pally; MediaCityUK may well become the place where childhood memories of broadcasting are forged, with Blue Peter and other shows based there.

As for the future of TVC itself, its studios will mostly be refurbished as a modern facility, and then hired out to production companies including the BBC, which is leasing three of them and basing some of its office staff there too. In short, it won’t be too different, in its use as a production facility, from now. Space that is currently surplus to need will also get a use, with a heritage centre of some sort opening. From the way Danny Baker was going on last night you’d think the whole thing was being demolished and replaced with flats – although some of the newer buildings may not survive, the core of the facility has an assured future. One sad thing is that TC8, the studio long favoured for larger comedy and light entertainment shows, is probably not going to survive on account of its location away from the main block of studios.

Overall, it’s probably the right outcome for the place. Imagine if the BBC had just kept it going for its own sake, with huge amounts of it empty and unused, ever-less appropriate for the needs of modern TV production – sooner or later, it would have become a scandal and embarrassment, no doubt with Tory MPs queueing up to demand the disposal and demolition of the outdated white elephant. There’s a case for saying the BBC has been (perhaps unusually) clear-sighted in avoiding backing itself into that particular corner.

I last walked out of TVC into a snowy night in 2009 after a recording of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. That evening, Lauren Laverne and a camera crew were wandering around filming for a documentary celebrating a show then entering its eighth series; predictably, BBC4’s celebrations completely overlooked this particular long-running BBC comedy success. While it was right to celebrate the end of an era at TVC, and the programmes were overall enjoyable, nostalgia-fests of that sort seldom tell the entire story.

Note: I’m no BBC historian so sections of the above may include factual errors; polite corrections will be welcomed.

What should a calling card script do and what shouldn’t it do?

This year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival was hugely instructive in terms of both the craft and the business of being a screenwriter. I’ve got no track record at all in either, so I hadn’t intended to do any ‘advice’ type blog posts – I seldom write them, as there are plenty of people better qualified than me.

That said, looking back over my notes (almost 60 pages – typing them up took me a day and a half) it struck me that there are one or two things I’ve not read elsewhere, or at least not explicitly. This post covers one of them: spec scripts and calling card scripts. Much-discussed over the weekend, and not necessarily the same thing – any script that’s not been commissioned is written on spec, but that doesn’t mean any non-commissioned script is fit for use as a calling card script. Your early spec scripts probably just won’t be good enough to send out, and should be treated as learning exercises – the perils of sending stuff out too early, because either it’s not sufficiently developed or you’re not, were a recurring theme across many sessions.

But what about the calling card script? The script that shows what you can do and hopefully interests producers and agents in you. Conventional wisdom I’ve read and heard elsewhere starts from the premise that it won’t get made – it’s just there to get you noticed. That’s true (with vanishingly few exceptions). But some things that can be said to follow on from that aren’t so true: “write what you really want to, as it’ll never get made” can get you in trouble.

So here’s my conclusion, which wasn’t said explicitly by any of the speakers I heard, and one or two of them might even dispute it: but a calling card script should be commercial. It should not simply be a demonstration of storytelling and craft. It will be assessed by producers and agents as they would assess any other script: can they sell it, can they get it made? Even though formal events like the speed pitching at last weekend’s festival are essentially artificial and unusual events, the same yardstick will be applied: a project that elicits teeth-sucking and mutterings that it’s hard to get that kind of thing made is not useful, even if you’ve written the script really well.

TV series and serials are immediately more attractive than singles. Some genres and tones are more appealing than others, and it varies by channel. A brilliantly written script on an abhorrent topic would also probably be a bad idea. My 90-minute TV single will always be commercially problematic, no matter how good I can get it; a piece of hard sci-fi will also be hard to sell, albeit for subtly different reasons (niche genre, rather than format [EDIT see the comments below for more on this point]). “Ah,” you may say, “if it’s brilliant it’s brilliant, and it’ll get you somewhere no matter how difficult a sell it might first appear.” Maybe – but at the very least, you’ve made your job significantly harder, which you can ill afford in such a competitive environment. If you can’t get a script into someone’s hands or inbox, it doesn’t matter how well it showcases your talent and craft (on the up-side, it doesn’t so much matter if it’s rubbish, I suppose).

That said, a well-polished spec script that you don’t use as a calling card can still have its uses. Producers and agents, if they’re taken with your calling card script, may well ask to see a second piece of work, although this isn’t always crucial: Julian Friedmann insisted on one panel that he’d be willing to work with someone on the basis of a single script, if it was good enough; Rob Thorogood got his spec script produced by the BBC and when asked if he’d written anything else honestly answered no – but it didn’t matter, he still got his project made and it’s bloody good. But there were plenty of speakers who said they like to see a second sample, and it’s a common request from BBC Writersroom if they like the thing you’ve sent in. So I’m going to keep developing my 90-minute single as a credible writing sample, even though it’s the next project that will be ‘the’ calling card script: a TV pilot rather than something more tricky to sell. It’s still a story I’m keen to tell, of course – there’s never merit in trying to second-guess what people want and write it for the sake of your career rather than the story: if you’re not committed to writing it, your version will inevitably be tepid and unappealing. But there is merit in prioritising, from among all the ideas in your head or on your list of things to write, something that can be put in a commercially viable form.

There’s all sorts of other good advice about writing these scripts, and what might be commercially appealing: have an answer to the question of which channel it would suit, pitch it to appropriate agents and producers, and so on – but that stuff’s out there in abundance already. There was an excellent session on what the different channels are looking for, and when the video is out you should watch it if you’re on the delegates’ network. And there are of course arguments for writing what you really want to, and they should never be lost from sight: it will hopefully be distinctively yours, and put your voice across. But it will almost certainly be truly useful only if it can be pitched and sold.

 

John Kell Vs Satan on North Palace Radio

I’m very excited to announce that John Kell Vs Satan, the radio show from which this blog takes its name, is making a return on the north London community internet station North Palace Radio. The plan is to do it fortnightly, going out every other Wednesday at 9pm and available to stream on Mixcloud thereafter.

I’ll try and remember to put up a post with the tracklist of each edition as they go out, but the information will be on Mixcloud anyway if I forget.

I started doing the show as a student, and revived it as a podcast on here for a little while – if you’re wondering about its name, there are reflections on that in this post. It probably looks bad to have my own name spoken so many times over the course of an hour or more, but otherwise I still think it’s a decent title, despite Art Brut subsequently having had similar inspiration for one of their albums – as long as you know who stole the idea first, OK?

My thanks go to Dom at North Palace Radio for offering me the slot – there’s a good mix of stuff on the station, so do have a look at the schedule.

If God hadn’t invented Indietracks…

On the Sunday night Sarah, Nick and I spent a good while sitting in the train bar thinking up possible future indie festivals, bearing in mind that there are plans afoot for one at a tank museum – Indietanks! I know I’ve forgotten a lot, but here are the decent-ish ones I remember – Sarah, help me out in the comments with any more?

  • An indiepop festival where compulsory sleep periods are scheduled into the timetable between bands… Indienaps.
  • An indiepop festival at a Golden Wonder factory… Indiesnacks.
  • An indiepop festival at Battersea Cats and Dogs home… Indiecats.
  • A 1940s-themed indiepop festival with a strict dress code in respect of trousers… Indieslacks.
  • An indiepop festival where headware is compulsory… Indiehats.
  • An indiepop festival co-organised with the Ordnance Survey… Indiemaps.
  • An un-PC indiepop festival at which children are encouraged to attend, but must be well-behaved at all time and may be firmly disciplined when necessary… Indiesmacks.
  • An indiepop festival offering free male all-body waxes… Indiebacksackandcrack.

Got any more? Add them below!

Why it’s OK to vote no to AV

Disclaimer: this blog post is written from a purely personal perspective. Just like all the other posts on the blog in fact, but as this is a relatively unusual foray into politics for this blog, for work reasons I want to emphasise these views are expressed in a solely personal capacity.

In the online world, and to an extent in the real one, I’m surrounded by mostly excellent, right-on, progressive, liberal-to-left people (I’m not commenting on how many of those adjectives apply to me). And on recent Twitter evidence, they are generally inclined to vote yes to the Alternative Vote… dare I say, almost as a reflex action in favour of reform? Probably not coincidentally, a recent poll  showing a strong lead for ‘no’ across the country has London, where I live, evenly split on the subject.

So maybe it feels hard to come out as against AV (though anyone who knows me will likely know my views). This post is for anyone else who feels similarly: don’t be afraid, it’s OK. It’s also partly inspired by MJ Hibbett‘s ‘yes’ video, which I’ll put at the end of the post for balance – it’s good fun, even though I don’t agree with the arguments. If Hibbett can do a song, I reasoned, maybe I can at least do a blog post. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not going to spell out acronyms or explain the systems: it assumes you know the basics.

Before we dive into detail, here is my thinking in a nutshell.

AV won’t make much difference either way. It certainly won’t solve any problems, least of all the ones that its advocates say it will. There is no compelling case for change. Whether you prefer AV or FPTP is a marginal call and, as much as anything, a matter of taste.

There’s more to democracy than the electoral system
Most of what I’ve read and heard about AV and FPTP over the last few months has been essentially incorrect. Both main campaign groups have, in my view, argued their case with a dispiriting disregard for accuracy. The biggest single myth – or lie, if you prefer – about AV is that it will make any significant difference to how we are governed.

Calculating the outcomes of past general elections under AV will inevitably be an uncertain science, but the best estimates  suggest that few, quite possibly none at all, of the post-war elections would have resulted in a different government (though some majorities would have been different, one or two more parliaments might have been hung, the February 1974 one might not have been). Some others might have prompted rather different politics due to the subtly different parliamentary arithmetic, but it’s impossible to say that there would have been truly significant consequences.

There are far more important factors in deciding who governs us than whether we have AV or FPTP (a switch to a proportional system would, of course, be a substantial change, and this blog post would read very differently if that was the choice before us). The redrawing of the constituency boundaries and reduction in seat numbers will have a massive impact on the next election, much greater than a switch to AV, by removing a long-standing bias in favour of Labour (and I’ve no sympathy for Labour claims of gerrymandering, as an aside: Labour had 13 years to do something statesmanlike and correct the bias, but instead they lay back and enjoyed its benefits, which was nothing short of gerrymandering by omission). That will be true whether the eventual election is under FPTP or AV, although in fact the legislation only allows for AV to be used with the new boundaries .

Other political factors are also more influential. Last year’s general election is a perfect example: under AV, it probably would have produced a hung parliament in which a Lib-Lab coalition was fully arithmetically viable, as well as the Lib-Con one. But the political factors that led to the current coalition – the Conservatives’ higher placing in the popular vote, the antipathy between Brown and Clegg and Labour’s cack-handed negotiations, deliberate or otherwise – would have led us to the same government.

More significant still is the choice on offer from our politicians: the strength of the rhetoric often disguises just how close the consensus on many issues, not least the all-important macroeconomic ones, has been in recent years (until c.2008, at least) between the three main parties. Whether or not Ed Miliband’s policy review leads Labour to break away from the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics since the dawn of New Labour will be far more significant to the next election than the system the contest is fought under.

Politics and government are, therefore, the result of much more than an electoral system. Reform of the electoral system should never be mistaken for significant political reform.

Myths about AV: the ‘no’ camp
So much, then, for the big picture. What about the claims for and against AV? Starting with the no camp, some of their arguments have been downright peculiar. The claim that AV will be more expensive because it require electronic voting machines appears to be pure fiction – just as well for them (and their opponents) that nobody thought to empower the electoral commission to police the truth of claims made!

Equally strange is the claim that AV will help the BNP. In fact it will reduce the chances of smaller parties like the BNP, Greens or UKIP taking a seat – under FPTP they might be able to sneak in with 35% now and again, but it will be harder for them to get 50% or close to it. As a curious aside, although the BNP leadership advocates a no vote, their voters are overwhelmingly inclined to vote yes according to polling.

Thirdly, the no campaign claim there will be more hung parliaments under AV. Technically this is true, but not by much: certainly claiming it will become routine is scaremongering. As with so much else in the debate, other political factors are far more significant to the likelihood of a hung parliament: if the Lib Dems don’t recover from their current slump, we would appear to be heading into a new era of two party dominance, which makes hung parliaments under either or AV or FPTP far less likely over the medium term.

Myths about AV: the ‘yes’ camp
Many of the myths peddled by the yes campaign are not so much calculated fiction as spectacular misreadings of the likely working of AV, were it to be introduced. First on this list, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole issue, is the question of safe seats.

The yes campaign claim that AV will have the effect of “tackling ‘jobs for life’” by forcing “complacent MP” to “sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.” Well, MPs with safe seats will usually have at least getting on for 50% of the vote already (64% of MPs have 44% of the vote locally or more) and are therefore overwhelmingly likely to nudge over 50% with ease under AV, and many of them (a third of all MPs) have a clear majority – surely these are just the MPs that advocates of AV should be most in favour of? Certainly these MPs don’t need to reach out any further to their communities – they already enjoy considerable support from it, and will not be under any risk from AV.

Now, there are certainly some seats where the MP might be fairly comfortable under FPTP, but not especially close to 50% – certainly in those seats the contests will be a bit closer. But I’d be willing to bet there are not that many of them (I wasn’t able to find any readily accessible analysis on this – happy to be pointed towards some). Moreover, there is a trade-off: under FPTP, even a large majority can be overhauled – no MP, even superficially safe ones, can count themselves safe and neglect their constituency. Michael Portillo is always cited of course, but there have been plenty of examples since then: one thinks of Lorely Burt overturning a 10,000 majority in Solihull in 2005, or Lembit Opik losing what should have been a safe seat after (I understand) a somewhat complacent reluctance to campaign locally. Challengers who eject apparently safe MPs usually do it by grabbing some of the sitting MP’s vote and reducing splits in the anti-incumbent vote, but the margins are often tight – in these seats, getting over the 50% mark will be too big an ask for many of these challengers.

Connected to this, I wonder if there will be an increase in the incumbency effect under AV. It’s a well-documented phenomenon of British general elections that MPs amass a personal vote: a sitting MP will attract more votes than a fresh candidate of the same party standing in the same seat would be able to. I suspect – and I’d be grateful to be pointed towards any literature on this point – that under AV many voters might not like a sitting MP’s party, but will be willing to give them a second or third (etc.) preference vote because they feel they have done well for the locality – perhaps a friend or relative approached them for help, or they opened their child’s primary school fete and so on – all the kinds of thing an incumbent can do to build their personal support, but that a challenger cannot.

Combine these factors and it may even be that fewer seats change hands under AV than would under FPTP on the same swing (again, pointers to authoritative literature for or against this suggestion are welcomed).

Similar considerations apply to the yes campaign’s claim that MPs will have to “work harder”. The seats in which a candidate has to work hardest to win is a tight marginal, where the winner might only get 30-odd per cent of the vote – yet this is also a scenario that the yes campaign claims is objectionable.

Looking further at the only ‘yes’ leaflet I’ve so far received, the headline attempts to suggest that what they suggest is a broader political malaise can be remedied by introducing AV. “Expenses scandal” says the top line. This has been looked into, however: there is no correlation between margins of victory or safeness of seat and the size of an MP’s expenses claim.

“MPs in the dock” continues the leaflet. If AV somehow prevents individuals from acting criminally, I must have misunderstood how it works. “Your voice not being heard” it concludes. See above re safe seats.

Finally, while I’m not sure the official yes campaign has claimed this, I’ve been struck by Nick Clegg claiming (I think repeatedly, though it might just have been reported multiple times with a bit of an interval) that AV is operating successfully in the London mayoral elections. It isn’t – those elections use the Supplementary Vote. Though from the other side of the debate, none other than Boris Johnson has made the same error.

Matters of taste
If there is a yes vote, let me emphasise I won’t be terribly upset (and not nearly as upset as the opinion pollsters, who are predicting a decisive no vote); nor will I be especially jubilant if the result is no. It really doesn’t matter very much. None of which is to say that there isn’t a difference between AV and FPTP. But it’s a marginal one, no more than swapping a Jack of Spades for a Jack of Clubs – certainly not the decisive gulf that both camps would have you believe exists between the systems.

Firstly, it is true that AV makes it harder for smaller parties and independents to get a seat in the Commons. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s a matter of taste – there might be something to be said, depending on your politics, for shutting out Dr Richard Taylor, the BNP or the Greens, but for my money the presence of smaller voices enriches British politics (usually).

It’s also true to say AV is more complicated than FPTP, though in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that tricky to get to grips with. Good thing or bad thing? I’d say there’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of complexity if there’s a clear reason for doing so… there just isn’t one of them, as we’ve seen.

Perhaps most significant for me is the question of second, third, fourth etc. preferences having equal weight with first preferences – it makes me uneasy, instinctively. I’m also uneasy about the fact that you can’t tell when you cast your vote whose column it will end up in. What happens if you cast a first preference vote for the candidate who ends up third, but a second preference for the eventual winner… who nonetheless wins without requiring the redistributed votes of Mr Third Place? Has your vote been ‘wasted’ even though you’ve got a candidate you were happy with? AV brings every bit as much potential for peculiarities and anomalies as FPTP.

That’s quite enough of that
There is much else one could discuss – the desirability or otherwise of hung parliaments, for instance. But I think this post is long enough already. I’ll finish by asking whether changing one aspect of general elections can ever be especially sensible – as we’ve seen, it will inevitably have consequences for the nature of the government and House of Commons we end up with, and while the consequences of the shift to AV would be minor, a shift to a proportional system could be much more significant. If we do want to reform general elections, we should be looking in the round at the whole structure of the relationship between the executive, the legislature and how we translate votes cast into one or both of these. Tinkering solely with one element such as the electoral system is, I can’t help but think, the Frank Spencer approach to constitutional reform.

But finally, as promised, here’s MJ Hibbett arguing the case for change:

2010 in review

This post was automatically generated by WordPress.com, but in the absence of any new posts imminently (TV review of 2010 likely not to happen, sorry!) here it is for the record.

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,000 times in 2010. That’s about 17 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 41 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 210 posts. There were 62 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 182mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was March 7th with 167 views. The most popular post that day was Jon Richardson is leaving 6Music – sad to hear it.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were bbc.co.uk, twitter.com, facebook.com, lucyvee.blogspot.com, and inleaguewithpaton.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for 6 music consultation, jon richardson leaving 6 music, 6music consultation, jon richardson leaving 6music, and bbc 6 music consultation.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Jon Richardson is leaving 6Music – sad to hear it February 2010
2 comments

2

TV review: Vexed by Howard Overman August 2010
20 comments

3

How to save BBC 6Music (3) – respond to the consultation March 2010
5 comments

4

Doctor Who: The End of Time was rubbish January 2010
14 comments

5

Why you should never write a “one page pitch” document May 2010

Christmas videos

As we’re now less than three weeks out from Christmas, I reckon it’s just about acceptable to put the decorations up, put the Christmas songs on the MP3 player (I’ve been stocking up on all sorts of Christmas indiepop this year) and maybe get the occasional turkey and stuffing sandwich from Greggs.

So to help with the mood, here are some festive videos: MJ Hibbett’s Christmas song of this year, The 29th Day of December (featuring yours truly as part of the “choir”, not that you’ll be able to tell), and its predecessor of a few years ago, The Advent Calendar of fact; plus the hilarious Jeremy Lion performing the Twelve Days of Christmas.

As for this blog, between now and the end of the year you can expect (hopefully) a couple of podcasts – one Vs Satan, one Vs Santa – some album of the year reviews and a TV round-up of the last twelve months as well. Until then, enjoy!

You can see some other (non-festive) videos I recommend on the Vodpod sidebar panel to the left.

If Power Snooker is the answer, what was the question?

Snooker’s problems are well-documented: throughout the twentieth century it was essentially a tin-pot game, which failed to reap the rewards of television through political in-fighting and bad governance. It has been left lacking in money, reliant on BBC rights payments and, until recently, with dwindling numbers of tournaments. Barry Hearn’s stewardship has brought more money in, but other promoters have decided to attempt something more radical (article by Clive Everton with more background here).

The result has been Power Snooker, a one-day invitation tournament with some new rules, and even a new ball. It is still being played as I type. Having been watching all day, I’ve got to say the Twitter jury is very divided: is it a much-needed injection of good fun, or a gimmick-ridden bastardisation of the game? A swiftly-forgotten reinvention like Tenball, or a moderately successful snooker-based TV format like Big Break?

For something that was meant to be more overtly entertaining, with more pizzazz and more of a show, Power Snooker’s TV presentation on ITV4 (a channel worth keeping an eye on for the odd unexpected treat) has been strangely clunky rather than slick. The sound from around the table has been poor at times, and although the players were supposed to be wearing mics, there’s been little evidence of this apart from occasional complaints they were hampering their play. The walk-on process is slow, with players standing around, evidently unclear about when they’re on camera (Mark Selby’s unwitting yawn gave this away), then ambling from an apparently arbitrary part of the arena to the table – and speaking of the arena, it feels odd to have snooker played with the audience so far removed, rather than around three sides of the table. Worse still, the intros by Matt Smith (the generally underrated ITV sports presenter, not the actor) have been deeply staid compared to those of BBC compere Rob Whatsisnose – at one point, Smith clearly had to stop himself from going “let’s get the boys on the baize!” – a phrase for which I never thought I could feel nostalgic. Also rather odd are the idents at the ad breaks, with two at the end of each  – presumably one an actual ident, one a sponsor thing… but they use the same music and style, and end up looking like two have been played instead of one by mistake. More significantly, Peter Drury’s commentary is piss-poor, with very little comment on the game or technique. The games voiced by Clive Everton immediately felt far more like snooker. Final gripe: the lighting generally is low, and the dark cloth on the table makes it look a bit washed-out and lifeless.

All of which is small beer – if the event is run again, I’d expect all of that to get tightened up. The worst aspect of the event, by a mile, is the crass and thoughtless sexism. What was the need for the ‘Power Girls’? They hang around looking decorative and ‘escort’ the players from the random place in the arena where they start their walk-on to the table. And when the player in question was fifteen year old Luca Brecel the effect was somewhat ridiculous. But there’s no excuse for this – how did we end up with a brand new sporting event in 2010 where women are brought in specifically as eye-candy? It’s not as if there aren’t women involved: both referees during the day are women, and not exactly gratuitous totty – both are fully qualified and accredited snooker referees, and their presence is a sensible way of restoring the gender balance of the event. Even better would have been to have a parallel women’s event. The women’s snooker circuit in the UK is not strong (is it even active at the moment?), but pool players from the US could have been brought in to jump-start it if needed. Mercifully the Power Bimbos’ involvement was kept pretty minimal.

There’s a broader point about the presentation, however: from the advertising by Tetleys to the boorish jeering of the crowd, this is being presented very clearly as an event for men. But why? Snooker audiences are far from male-dominated in the way that, say, motor racing ones are. Why such a restricted target demographic? The other great innovation of the event seems to have been to fill the audience with booze over the course of the day, which has had the obviously desired effect of giving a very rowdy atmosphere. It doesn’t quite feel as though it’s going to kick off, though – players and referees alike seem to be enjoying it and having a good laugh during the game, which actually makes it quite good fun to watch.
So much for the presentation: what about the snooker?

The new format has some welcome innovations. The simple twist that it is the points accrued in a set amount of playing time, rather than frames, makes for a straightforward and understandable game – frankly, it’s surprising it’s not been tried before. The twenty-second time limit on shots ensures a good pace, and puts a very different type of pressure on the players to that normally seen in the game. Mistakes are more common, despite the large pockets and pool table cloth (no nap), which the players have adapted to with varying degrees of success.

The designation of the area behind the baulk like as the ‘Power Zone’ from which all pots score double points at first felt like a needless gimmick. However, it has encouraged more play at that end of the table. Similarly I have felt that the ‘Power Ball’ – which causes all pots to count double for two minutes after it is potted – was an unnecessary complication, In practice, it has proved tactically vital, as making the most of a ‘power play’ period is essential for a player to stand a good chance of winning. Also useful at forcing the pace is the rule that from the break-off at least two balls must strike a cushion – effectively, players have to smash the pack. The time limit overall – thirty minutes of play, irrespective of frames – can create great tension in a close game where one player is chasing down an achievable target.

There are down sides as well. Now that frames don’t matter, there is only one crunch point, namely when the thirty minutes are up. There is far less ebb and flow than in a match broken down into frames. As with any sport where a simple total of points determines the winner, any side taking a large early lead is likely to make the result evident very early on and dispel any tension – and so it was with most of these games, with some quite blatant running down towards the clock at times (though at times it was quite funny – Ali Carter’s decision to “take a walk round the table” was a highlight of the day). The upside was some humour once the result was beyond doubt, with trick shots including a karate-chop from Jimmy White.
One rule that does seem a bit of a waste of time is the bonus of 50 points for a century break, and 100, then 200 for century breaks in subsequent frames. This was hardly ever seen, but where it was it just entrenched the advantage of the player who’d made the century and made it hard for his opponent to get back. The rule could comfortably be ditched. Overall however, the various tweets to the effect that this was a cross between snooker and Numberwang have proved a bit pessimistic. Though the constant referee’s cries of “power zone!” are a bit of an annoyance and can surely be dispensed with – we can see where the cue ball is!

Overall, for what is effectively a TV pilot show, Power Snooker has shown that there’s enough of an idea here to make it worth bringing back, appropriately tweaked. It’s not a replacement for the mainstream game, but it’s a pretty fun supplement to it, that should also take the pressure off it to go too glam in its presentation and format changes. Given the close time constraints, it’s particularly nice that this format dispenses with late finishes on BBC2, which frankly I find increasingly annoying. Though part of me still thinks it comes second to Big Break. G’night JV!

Indietracks review: Sunday

It was a lovely feeling to wake up on Sunday and realise (a) in the hangover stakes I’d really got off incredibly lightly, all things considered, and (b) there was a whole day of Indietracks still to go!

On getting to the site I had my only train rides of the weekend, the first of them being on the main line, while Clint from Play People was playing. I didn’t pay absolutely rapt attention (I was leaning out of the window in the carriage behind to look at the engine – it’s steam railway etiquette) but he seemed rather charming, particularly when he closed with a cover of Crash by the Primitives and had to stop before the first chorus because he hadn’t agreed with the audience whether he’d do the na-na-na-nas and they’d go “You’re gonna crash!” or the other way round. Most of the audience was in fact made up of the wedding party from earlier that morning, when Ballboy’s drummer had got married in the signalbox. The box remained decorated with saltaires for the rest of the day, and there were men in kilts knocking around for a good while too.

Back at Swanwick the main day’s events got off to a great start, firstly because Kat had arrived, and secondly because it was time for Hibbett! This was a proper festival set from Mark and the Vlads, who totally owned the stage and got a great crowd down the front, all dancing away (bigger than the next few bands, frankly). Mark’s described it better here, but as previously note my personal favourite bit was when everyone did the audience participation bit in Easily Impressed without having to have it explained to them. The music of the future and Twitter exploits were also GRATE, however.

The only way to follow this was, frankly, with another train ride, this time on the narrow gauge line, and a further look round the engine shed. I was back at the site in time for The Loves, however, a band I’d been aware of in their earlier days but never really got properly into or seen live. Stupid old me, it turns out, as they were ace – there’s maybe a case for saying the music verges on a pastiche of 60s pop, but if it’s a pastiche as good as this I really don’t care. The set started with the band coming on-stage to the strains of Mars by Holst, Simon Love wearing a cape, and the first number being accompanied by a troupe of dancing girls. It carried on in much the same way, including an apparently rare outing mid-set for their classic (in my mind) Boom A Bang Bang Bang. The Sean Price Moment I’ve already recounted, and the set was rounded off with more dancing girls-augmented numbers. I spent much of the rest of the day asking everyone I ran into if they’d seen the Loves – it seems to have passed quite a lot of people by (clash with something on the indoor stage? Blanche Hudson Weekend, perhaps?). My next step was to go and find a Loves album in the merch tent, which gave me an excuse to take advantage of the three-for-a-tenner Fortuna Pop offering (other omissions from my record collection also corrected: The Ladybug Transistor and The Chemistry Experiment).

I did then briefly catch the end – literally about the final two bars – of The Blanche Hudson Weekend‘s set, which was more squally than I’d expected. Back to the main stage, via several more happy chats with people I’d run into, I ended up watching veteran Australian duo The Cannanes… who were (sorry guys) probably the band I enjoyed least all weekend. It was miserable bastard indie sung by the woman while the chap strummed an electric guitar. They sounded much better when joined by a rhythm section (borrowed from Sarandon, I gathered later – but I’d stopped paying attention by this point) – I’m sure if you knew their songs already it came across rather better, but I didn’t really get it.

A brief look in the signalbox later (pictured – it’s not the railway’s actual signalbox if you’re worrying, it’s just for exhibition), we caught the end of Internet Forever. They’re a three-piece who stand in a line on-stage, changing instruments a bit – overall, shouty, but good shouty, and I was pretty impressed. Also notable for two reasons: firstly one of their members looks exactly like Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey (lots of moustaches in evidence this weekend, actually – just a hipster thing, or part of a wider comeback?); and secondly, they were playing Walk of Life as we walked in, which was one more Dire Straits cover than I was expecting to hear all weekend.

At about this point the festival moved onto the home straight, and I was pretty much resolved to spend the rest of the time watching the parade of bands on the main stage starting with ‘S’: Standard Fare, Shrag, Slow Club. Unfortunately it was also at around this time that the bar ran out of cask ale – now, as any CAMRA branch will tell you (and well done to the local CAMRA branch on providing a great selection), you always want the beer to run out a bit before the end rather than being left with loads not drunk, but maybe for next year it’d be good to order a bit more?

To add to the vague sense of looming apocalypse engendered by a lack of cask ale, we had a couple of light showers during the following sets – but frankly it didn’t matter. Standard Fare were clearly having a great time, and Hibbett and Carsmile are both adamant they’re going to be big. Not sure I remember much about their set other than it being ace.

Next up were Shrag, whose brash, shouty indie racket really caught my ear on the festival compilation CD, and on Spotify following further investigation. They definitely didn’t disappoint, with singer Helen bouncing all round the stage for the whole set like a brilliant but terrifying (and sweary) force of nature. The whole set was messy pop brilliance and their forthcoming album is well worth a look when it finally comes out. I only know this because I bought it from the merch tent on Saturday, not thinking much of there being some advance copies on sale. It was John Jervis’s turn to be a label boss getting a hard time from his band on-stage, though, as Helen lamented that when he said he’d, “brought the new album,” to sell, it turned out he’d only brought 25 copies, of which guitarist Bob had taken two – so I got one of only 23 in the end.

Last in the s-themed trio were Slow Club, and I’ve got to admit I felt a bit suspicious of them – a bit fashionable for Indietracks, surely? Well, was I ever proved wrong to be so doubtful – Slow Club were incredibly impressive. The technical stuff was all there: both really strong muscians, both with great voices (Tom later remarked to me that Rebecca has, “a lot of talent going on…” I’m sure that was what he meant), but also the songs are top-notch. Plus Rebecca’s no-nonsense banter, in thickest Sheffield brogue, both put us in our place and made us love her. Damn their young, talented eyes.

I went to one last set at the indoor stage, the reunion show of The Pooh Sticks, who were a lot noisier than I’d expected. In fact I have a theory that a lot of C86 type bands were louder live than they were on record, owing to the awful weedy amps that apparently every indie band had to record with by law in the 80s, and that modern bands trying to ape the recorded sound are probably less punchy live than their forebears. Just a theory. Anyway, I didn’t know the songs but The Pooh Sticks were a fun thrash, enhanced by the presence of, “everyone’s favourite chief economist,” Amelia Fletcher on vocals for much of it.

And so to the final set of the weekend, the highlights of which for me were Hibbett arriving with lots of beer in a photo opp stylee, and having my photo taken at mystifying length by the shy, introverted Roo. Now I come to think about it, I’m fairly sure The Pains of Being Pure At Heart were playing on the main stage at the time, but although lots of people clearly loved them I’m afraid they just didn’t do it for me. Another American band being too consciously indie, maybe? I’m pretty sure I heard one of them thanking God for indiepop at one point. Still, if you happen to like their one song you were in luck, as they played it about twelve times.

So, what to say about the remainder of the weekend? The toilets became blocked during the Pains’ set, which had strategic knock-on implications: it created an imperative to drink less, and excellent though the Feeling Gloomy disco was (truly all killer, no filler… although I did have to explain to, well, someone, that the “really camp cover version” of Tainted Love was in fact the original hit version – shame on me for delighting in an opportunity to be a music snob). The Crimes Against Pop disco on the campsite also sounded excellent (Echobelly! Britpop-tastic!), but by the time it really got going I’m afraid my dancing feet were worn out.

As we wandered off the camp site next morning, the strains of someone singing Do The Indie Kid floated across from a nearby tent… but don’t tell Hibbett. Still, it was lovely to get home and then watch everyone else trickling back on Twitter, saying how weird it was not to be running into indie types everywhere they turn. They’re right: it was, still is and will probably remain so for the next twelve months. Really the only cure is likely to be Indietracks 2011 – see you there.

Indietracks review: Saturday

One of the many many nice things about Indietracks is the presence of showers, what with the camping being on a proper camp site and everything. So a shower, a coffee and a bacon cob later (I didn’t have a sandwich all weekend – it’s all cobs in this part of the world, it’s brilliant) I was ready for a full day’s worth of schmindie.

Well, first of all I was ready for a look round the railway’s museum shed bit, which was pretty good, but it wasn’t until the following day I realised there was a whole extra shed a little further down, owned by the Princess Royal Locomotive Trust, with loads more exhibits, massive locomotives and all sorts of stuff. I knew it existed, but for some reason thought it was down the line at Butterley – they should publicise it more, it was ace, but when Nick and I went round it almost totally empty.

Back to Saturday though, and after the gricing came the realisation that the tin church stage is really a bit small. There was no room for us to go in and see Urban Tramper, and later in the weekend huge queues stopped me even trying to see Betty and the Werewolves, White Town and, well, anything else at all in this venue. However, after briefing watching Red Shoe Diaries on the main stage (who seemed pretty enjoyable – if we’d had to come back I wouldn’t have complained) we did manage to get into the church to see Foxes!

One of the really lovely things about festivals can be finding a little-known band who are utterly brilliant and then following them for years afterwards, whether on to greater things or through continued obscurity. I think and hope Foxes! were that band for me this time, as I thought they were fantastic (although they’ve clearly been going a good few years and I’m showing my ignorance a bit by suggesting they’re little-known). Ostensibly they’re well within the traditional indie template, but they do all sorts of interesting stuff while they’re there – in particular, though they’ve got plenty of great tunes, they never just stick with them, but always move on to something different within the song. The result is never obscure or challenging though, and even when the lyrics are twee the pop hooks keep you listening. Also: fabulous girl singer and drummer, who looked a bit like I imagine Frances de la Tour probably looked in her youth. Brilliant band – I’m looking forward to their forthcoming nautical-themed EP, which they played in full. And while I normally have doubts about punctuation in band names, it made sense when their guitarist wanted to check if they could start the next song and shouted: “Foxes! Ready!”

Afer the high-point of Foxes! came a couple of low-ish points on the main stage. This Many Boyfriends were a bit shouty and repetitive, with a song saying they don’t like you because you’re not a fan of… the Smittens, was it? Whatevs. Next up were La La Love You, who were good fun I suppose, but who I couldn’t warm to after hearing the phrase “the Spanish Busted”. Still, they have gameshow host-type spangly pink jackets, and a keyboard player who didn’t play the keyboards at all but had, rumour had it, pretended to be a member of the band to get into the country.

So I ambled across to the indoor stage to see Linda Guilala, another Iberian artist who turned out to be a singer alternating between keys and a rather cool squared-off Danelectro guitar, plus a second guitarist and programmed drums. She looked a bit like Laura Veirs to me. It was very tuneful, but after the ambition and complexity of Foxes! didn’t quite fire me up. She also had two guests on-stage at the end, who I know I know but can’t place…

Antarctica Takes It! (lots of punctuation in band names at this festival, now I think about it) were next up on the main stage: another US band, with boy and girl singers, who seemed pretty decent. However, it was soon time for another of the weekend’s highlights: The Just Joans. How to describe them? Maybe a cross between MJ Hibbett and Arab Strap? They’ve got that acid Scottish observational quality, and a rich and truthful vein of insight into everyday life and worries, but with a wry and sometimes slightly silly sense of humour. Perhaps they bring a bit more menace and edge to the live performances than their records, as having bought their last mini-album, I see why they badge themselves twee: it’s very gentle, but live they rock a bit harder. Great tunes though – having heard it for the first time in their set, I was singing the chorus of If You Don’t Pull in my head for the rest of the weekend.

On the main stage immediately after the Just Joans finished their indoor set were The Smittens, who ended their set with a cover of the Just Joans song, What Do We Do Now? that they had closed with as well. It felt a bit odd (but it sounds very little like the Sleeper song)… The Smittens were really well-received, but to me it felt a bit… formulaic maybe? Forced? They consciously set out to be twee, in that irony-free way only Americans can manage – it was sincere and lovely, but maybe a bit too sincere and lovely at the expense of the songs.

Some more wandering around, beer and chatting then ensued, before it was time for Ballboy. Oh dear – it’s taken me ten years to see them, and then I spent most of the set at the back of the site chatting! Still, I recognised one or two tunes from those early Peel Session days, which was nice.

The last great big highlight of the day were Tender Trap on the indoor stage. I’d only seen one set with their new line-up before, in the confines of the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes when the sound, or perhaps the fact I was on the outside of quite a lot of beer, hadn’t done them many favours. The beer factor was admittedly pretty well replicated this time, but the set was a bit of a revelation: perhaps because of the last time I’d expected them to be OK, but they were superb! The heavier sound, conjured by two guitarists (including Elizabeth Allo Darlin’) as opposed to just the one back in the Heavenly / Marine Research days, and the stripped-back drumming, really worked for the songs – and if you’ve not got the album you should invest, as it’s probably Amelia Fletcher’s best outing on record yet. Tremendous.

As it goes, there were quite a few standing and singing drummers on show this weekend: Tender Trap boasted one; Slow Club and Internet Forever the next day boasted others.

Anyway, The Primitives had a sitting-down drummer… and if there are any small gripes to be had about the festival – which really feels incredibly churlish – it might be the headliners. Most people seemed to enjoy The Primitives, apart from everyone I spoke to, if you see what I mean. They threw Crash away slightly in the second half of their set, neither a climax nor a focal point anywhere else, almost as if they somehow resent it being the only song everyone knows.

And with that, it was disco time again. How Does It Feel were doing a 60s set, and had great music… but there were reports of all the cool people being in the shed at Astrogirl. Almost immediately we found MJ Hibbett and the Validators, who hit the floor with some determination to Babies by Pulp. Atta Girl by Heavenly proved a divide, with Tim and Rob returning to the floor (as did I), Tom and Mark sitting it out. Other advantages of the shed were the more even floor surface – both the main site marquee and the marquee on the camp-site had incredibly stony floors, which made dancing at all a bit of a challenge.

Though I say it myself, I judged the evening pretty well, and was more or less the right amount drunk that night, and more or less the right amount hung over the next day… Could have been a lot worse…